Chop, chop: Hongkongers train minds via art of the samurai sword

Iaido, ancient Japanese martial art that spawned the sport of kendo, has a small but loyal following in Hong Kong

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 04 August, 2015, 12:21am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 04 August, 2015, 12:21am

A nondescript graffiti-covered industrial building stands at 168 Wai Yip Street in Kwun Tong. It is the last place anyone would expect to find a martial arts dojo, yet the fourth floor is home to the Hong Kong Toyama-Ryu Iaido Association.

Inside, the air is thick with the smell of straw mats soaking in water. Its bare concrete floor gives way to a wood surface on which six members assemble for one of their biweekly practices. Large mirrors cover one wall, while the other is occupied by a shrine to the samurai who began practising this skill as early as the 16th century.

Known as iaido, the traditional sword fighting skill is considered the origin of kendo, the well-known martial art with bamboo swords. Iaido, however, uses live [sharp] blades and focuses more on cutting techniques than combat.

Watch: How this Japanese martial art can help train your mind 

Wearing simple robes and carrying only a sword, the goal behind iaido is to train both mind and body, says association founder Lok Wai-keung.

"When you walk into the dojo you are carrying a sword with a live blade," says Lok. "You need discipline, focus and concentration. This kind of mental training is what we focus on here."

It is this cerebral aspect of the sport that attracts participants, says Philippe Espinasse, one of 10 active members of the dojo. There are an estimated 100 iaido practitioners in five dojos in the city.

"You learn to be very precise about everything," says Espinasse. "You learn the skill and you repeat it over and over until you perfect it."

As a result of the intense focus required to master the sport, the mind enters a meditative state that relieves stress, claims Lok.

Other schools focus just on form, with no focus on actually cutting things. They might all have beautiful form, but they never do anything with it.
Charles Tse

"It's not just skills," he adds. "It's focus and discipline training. Many people are stressed after a long day at work, and they need some form of exercise to relax not just the body, but the mind as well."

The importance of repetition is most evident during the kata - or skill performance - portion of the session.

With each member spaced about 1.5 metres apart, members run through various cutting exercises, their blades slashing in all directions.

However, unlike other local dojos, the Hong Kong Toyama-Ryu Iaido Association's training does not stop after the drills have been completed. Members are given the opportunity to apply what they have learned by cutting straw mats and sparring using foam swords.

"Iaido in this school has more variations of practice," says member Charles Tse, a yoga teacher. "Other schools focus just on form, with no focus on actually cutting things. They might all have beautiful form, but they never do anything with it."

Despite appearances, the density of a rolled water-soaked mat is similar to a human limb. The angle of the cut must be precise to go through. It requires physical and mental prowess, says Espinasse, a business consultant.

"It's really an exercise in concentration," he adds.

The mats are mounted on wooden stands and members take turns using single cuts or a combination of two or more rapid strikes. Before and during the cutting, the dojo is silent, with members focused only on the mat and nothing else. The sound of whirring fans is disrupted only by determined grunts and the sound of wet mat pieces hitting the concrete floor.

In contrast to the silent focus during cutting, the practice is concluded by a round of energetic sparring. Members face off against one another, a whirling frenzy of robes and the hollow sound of foam contacting bodies.

The lack of sparring is one of the main reasons iaido is less popular than its descendant kendo, because combat training appeals to younger demographics, says Lok.

Toyiu Yu, 20, the dojo's youngest member, says his favourite part of practice is the sparring matches.

"Using a weapon to spar is very exciting," he says.

 

According to Lok, the sport's growth is further hampered by the challenge of finding an adequate private training space and the danger that comes with using live blades. "Our dojo is about 200 square metres," says Lok. "Each blade is 60cm long, so every person needs at least 1.5 metres of room to swing the blade. We can only have a maximum of eight people practising at one time."

Lok's association is one of few groups in Hong Kong to have a private dojo. Other clubs meet in different public sporting arenas, says Espinasse. Having their own space has benefits such as storing mats for cutting.

In addition to being limited by training facilities, the use of real swords deters clubs from accepting just anyone.

"We'd like to grow more, but we are very cautious about it because we use live blades," says Lok. "We are very selective. We are looking for mature and focused people who want to learn these skills."

The association only has a handful of members, but Lok says their passion for keeping this Japanese tradition alive is strong even though iaido skills are not very practical in the modern world.

In order to raise awareness, the association has held live cutting demonstrations and is offering an eight-week summer course to learn the basics.

"It's not something many people know about," says Espinasse. "A lot of people have heard of aikido and kendo, but if you were to ask someone on the street about iaido, most of them wouldn't have a clue what it is."

Visit the dojo and observe a class, Tues (8pm-10.30pm) or Sat (2pm-5pm). For more details, go to iaido.com.hk or call 9772 8392